#rumfamily : Favourite Rum Writers-Lance Surujbally

Continuing the #rumfamily series we get to know someone who really takes an in depth look at the Rum world, ‘The Lone Caner’, Lance Surujbally. I came across Lance’s website several years ago and appreciate that it has not only reviews (over 600) but also opinion pieces and essays which have expanded my knowledge but also made me think and question the category. I highly recommend you check it out.

How long have you been blogging?
I started writing privately in February 2009, and when there was a small collection, began publishing a swathe of these early reviews in January 2010 as part of a book-Whisky-Rum collective in Calgary called Liquorature.

In March 2013, everything was transferred to the standalone, Rum-focused Lone Caner website which has been up and running ever since.

What got you started/what is your background?
An appreciation for Rum which was lacking in Alberta (where whisky is De Big Ting) and a love of writing, both intersected. It just started as a journal of the Rum journey, and I was fortunate to begin in the one deregulated province in Canada, which gave me access to Rums unavailable anywhere else in the country. At the time there weren’t many Rum blogs out there so I felt one more could only be a good thing.

Aside from some West Indian heritage in the bloodline and living in the Caribbean for two decades, there’s nothing in my professional background that relates to Rum – and though I’m in currently in the Finance and Management fields, I’ve also worked in the past as a bank clerk, field geophysicist, remote site administrator, auditor, secretary, small aircraft ops officer, radio announcer, proofreader, construction pig, accountant and teacher.  In the course of doing these things, “home” has been, variously, Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, Canada, Central Asia and the Middle East, usually for many years at a time.

What was your first memorable Rum?
There are many memorable ones. The first of the Firsts was the English Harbour 1981 25 year old, which is also review #0001.  And after trying hundreds of rums over ten years, I also remember with great fondness my intro to Rum Nation Demeraras and Jamaicans in 2011; my first try of the Clairin Sajous in Paris in 2014; the first sip of G&M 1941 58 year old Longpond; the first Velier I ever tried, the Albion 1994, in 2012; and the crisp and clear agricole majesty of the Courcelles 1972.

How has the Rum industry changed since you have been blogging?
Immensely – compared to the state of affairs back in the early 2000s, it’s like being in another universe altogether

The provision of information has been upped by many companies and their representatives, and most have informative websites that give useful background, and respond to queries when asked. This is a direct consequence of the detonation of the sugar/additives issue into the wider consciousness back in 2014 when the first hydrometer tests started to go public.  It was denied routinely back when I started, but now it’s accepted wisdom. On the flip side it’s created and exacerbated divisions within the consuming public which is far too adversarial for my liking.

The epicentre of Rums has decisively moved away from light blends bottled at standard strength and towards stronger, purer Rums which may or may not be aged and usually not filtered – and often from a pot still.  Countries, regions, estates and even specific stills have become major selling points, and previously top-dog blends, while still being made, ceded premier status to Rums that are more specific. Side by side with this development has been the upsurge of quality white fullproof Rums which are not filtered or aged in any way.

Agricoles were always made, but limited to Europe and small groups of aficionados elsewhere. But in the last ten years they have exploded in popularity, and not just for Caribbean Rums, but for new startups now making Rums in the Far East.

Tropical ageing has come into its own.  For economic reasons I don’t see them displacing continentally aged distillates any time soon, but certainly the potential is there.  This goes hand in hand with the increasing desire of original producers to start bottling their own estate / company / country specific Rums rather than just ship bulk distillate to Europe for brokers to cash in on there; and that in turn leads to the current push for country-specific Geographical Indicators, which was an issue completely off the radar to the community back in 2009

There are more independent bottlers than ever before.  In the Good Old Days the Scottish whisky makers would release an occasional bottling of Caroni or WIRD Rum or maybe an Enmore or Jamaican; and the Italians indies like Samaroli, Velier, Moon Imports and Rum Nation were all but unknown.  Now there are annual releases of whole ranges covering all major Rum producing territories by a multitude of scrappy little companies, most of which are from Europe.

The avenues for the coming together of Rum aficionados have grown almost exponentially.  In 2009 there were perhaps five Rum blogs, two major online forums for fan interaction, and one big time Rum festival – now there are Rum websites all over the map, Facebook Rum clubs can discuss any Rums or any aspects of the industry, and one can attend Rum festivals almost every month of the year, all over the world.

What is the most challenging thing about blogging?
Those problems that I started with are no longer the ones I have now.  Back then it was time, work-life-blog balance and acquiring bottles once the province’s relatively meagre supplies were exhausted.

Nowadays the challenge is to find a new and interesting Rum or Rum subject to write about, since the major brands are so well known and written about to exhaustion.  So I keep searching around the world for new Rums from countries we don’t know much about – and that’s difficult since they lack publicity, social media presence, or people to introduce them to us, and I lack the resources and time to go visit all the regions personally.

Moreover, shipping the Rums one acquires remains a constant irritant. Even when I can find the Rums I want (and can afford them), I can’t send them around the world to wherever is convenient. In Canada, one can’t even take them over provincial borders, let alone easily bring them into the country from abroad. The US has its crazy three tier system, and there are days I just want to move to Europe, where they can mail bottles around without any nonsense.

What is the most rewarding thing?
No question, engagement with readers who comment intelligently or with honest curiosity about something I’ve written – whether or not they agree. Some make purchasing decisions based on these reviews, which forces me to take the responsibility of being a consulted resource very seriously.

Just as good is the friends I’ve made, from all over the world.  We meet rarely, but correspond a lot and it’s always great when we can meet up in person someplace. It’s like an instant party whenever it occurs.

Who has helped you in the industry?
Many people gave me help back at the beginning, providing generous advice, samples, and encouragement – in the first years that was Chip Dykstra (The Rum Howler) and Curt Robinson (from All Things Whisky) in particular. As time went on the circle of people who got involved in this obscure writing project widened – Matt Pietrek, Gregers Nielsen, Henrik Kristoffersen, Nicolai Wachmann, John Go, Robin Wynne, Tatu Kaarlas, Pete Holland, Master Quill, Pietro Caputo, Paul Senft, Josh Miller, Gianni Debipersad (among others), became friends as well as sounding boards and sources of technical info.  Many producers and industry people were generous with their time and assistance over the years: Luca Gargano, Mike Speakmann, Tristan Prodhomme, Florent Beuchet, Fabio Rossi, Yoshi Takeuchi…these few names just scratch the surface.

But from my own perspective – that of a writer and blogger – it’s consistently well-written work I admire and respect the most: particularly that of Steve James’s Rum Diaries Blog, Simon Johnson’s Rum Shop Boy, Matt’s informative wonkery, Marius’s flights on Single Cask Rum, Cyril Weglarz’s work on Du Rhum, Laurent Cuvier and his poussette, Roger Caroni’s eponymous blog, Marcus Freyr’s Barrel Aged Mind, Serge Valentin’s almost-weekly Rum haikus on WhiskyFun and the opinions of the uber-prolific Fat Rum Pirate (links to most websites can be found here). These, with some others (and the readers who want to connect), are also the people I talk to the most.

So for me, the hat tip and respect are given to the writers who are out there, most doing it all for free.  The levels of expenditure they must be incurring is astounding: distillery trips, Rumfests attendances, Rum purchases, sample bottles, storage space…and they do all this within the confines of a day job and family time.

What frustrates you about the industry?
Nothing that hasn’t been said by others. There’s the oft-bemoaned, baffling lack of proper disclosure that still goes on, by far too many producers; and the so-called lifestyle writers who know little or nothing about Rums but publish authoritative lists that misrepresent Rums and misinform the general public.  Combined, these translate into an uninformed public who then believe that the mediocre is a pinnacle, or that a tarted-up Rum-strumpet is the end of their journey. I think Rum fans have an obligation to do their own research, but consumers could sure be helped by better materials and disclosure from Rum makers (and these “journalists”). As could bloggers, who have turned into the Fourth Estate of Rum.

What is your best bit of advice to someone new to Rum?
This pretty much sums it up: expand your knowledge.

Sip around, see where your preferences lie, know the diversity of the spirit and its profiles from around the world, and never be afraid to try the new and the esoteric and the downright weird. Understand why you like the Rums you do – is it sugar, is it dryness, is it funk, grass, caramel, a particular taste profile, its age…?

No, price does not equal quality, and neither does age, or strength, or colour. Do not buy what you cannot afford – or in some cases, what you can – just because of a big number or a snazzy story.  Know what you’re getting before you drop the coin.

Any unicorn/bucket list Rums you haven’t tried yet?
Anything I haven’t tried is a bucket list Rum, but of course some are more bucket-y than others. I’d like to try the Harewood House 1780 “Dark”, some of the Pre-Revolution Bacardis, the Jamaican “Dagger” series of aged Rums from the pre-1960s, the 1948 50% Courcelles, the Farrell’s Estate Rums from Montserrat before they closed down, and some of the very early arracks from Indonesia. My unicorns these days tend to be out of production Rums which I want to record and write about for future reference and so that naturally includes everything in Luca’s warehouse in Genoa, and Steve Remsberg’s entire collection.

But in truth, at the rate I can sample and think and research and write and publish, I know I can never try everything – and therefore, these days, I just want to expand the literature of the subject by writing about as many as I can.  I’m grateful for all the Rums I do get to try, and then describe.

What is your proudest achievement so far?
Surviving the writing gig for ten years without quitting. Believe me, there were times I wanted to.

If you can, what would be your top three Rums ever?
Only three? I’ll always remember the Harewood House 1780 “Light”, the Bally 1924, Velier UF30E 1985, the Domaine de Courcelles 1972,  Gordon & McPhail 1941 58 year old, Damoiseau 1980, Chantal Comte 1980 Trois Rivieres, and damn it, yes, the Clairin Sajous deserves a mention again (for sheer originality back when I tried it that first time).  There are of course many others and my list could easily accommodate ten times that number without running out of steam. These are the ones that occur to me right now.

What would be your top three easily obtainable Rums to have now?
That I’d have to pass on, as it really is too limiting a number.

What is your drink of choice at the moment?
I have no Rum of choice at any time, and usually just drink what’s new and in front of me.

Do you have any Predictions for the future of Rum?
I demonstrated my incompetence at prognostication back in 2015 when I said DDL would never come out with “Velier-style” rums of their own….right before they did. Here’s some reasonable ideas, though:

  1. Geographical Indicators will likely take effect in at least two countries soon – Jamaica and Barbados, since they’re at the forefront of trying to get it done. It’s too soon to tell whether other countries will follow suit, but they probably will, because it will become an economic necessity (see below).  This will have impacts on the European independent bottlers that cannot be quantified easily.
  2. Asia as a Rum producing region will take on greater prominence both at the craft level (small micro distilleries making small-batch quality rums like Laodi, Sampan, Samai, Issan, Chalong Bay, etc) and with industrial scale macro distilleries producing huge quantities of low-cost ethanol to be made into Rum via flavouring additives and short ageing cycles. The economies of scale and extraordinarily low production costs of these mass-produced ersatz spirits will create major economic dislocations for old production houses who make their own distillate.
  3. The rise of such cheap blends will inevitably force many independents out of the Rum business (or into making blends of their own), and smaller primary producers in the Caribbean will have to emphasize their geographical uniqueness via GIs and careful branding, and aim for the premium end of the market with limited, cask strength, middle- or highly-aged rums.  The Foursquare ECS or Hampden/WP estate Rum models are probably the ones they’ll follow.